World class athletes: Two go ‘down under’ for triathlon

Sisters Morgan (from left) and Erika Setzler with Sara Ross.

by Karl Lenser

Conway’s Erika Setzler and Sara Ross realized a goal to go “Down Under” to compete in the World Triathlon Championships in Australia.  Both recently shared their backgrounds and experiences last fall in Australia with 501 LIFE.


Erika qualified for the USAT National Championships in Omaha, Neb. She had to place in the top 18 in her age group to make Team USA to compete in Australia. She placed 11th.  

At the world competition, she competed in the amateur category, which included swimming 1,500 meters (about 1 mile), biking for 25 miles and running 6.2 miles. She placed as the seventh American and 23rd overall for her age group. In the overall competition, she was the 17th American and 73rd female.

Erika competed in the amateur category at the world championships. She placed as the seventh American and 23rd overall for her age group.

Erika, 27, has a bachelor’s degree in kinesiology with an emphasis on exercise science and a master’s degree in health science, both from the University of Central Arkansas.

Running background: I ran my first 5K in the second grade with my mom, a friend and her mom. I remember running up the street and back to them, and then they just said, “Go ahead and just keep going. Don’t wait for us.” 

In third grade is where it really started though. I participated in our morning Excel class with our PE teacher. We had 20 minutes to run as many laps as we could three days a week. I loved it so much that while everybody else was stopping to walk, I would keep running until we had to go inside.  

When did the “triathlon fever” hit: I was asked to be part of a team at the DeGray triathlon before my junior year of high school. I did the running portion, and afterward I said, “Wow that was fun, I think I might try and come back next year and do the whole thing by myself.”

The next summer I had gotten a bike and began to swim, bike and run nearly every day. My main focus was on running, so I didn’t get to swim or bike during the school year. It was just summers I would train for triathlons. 

It wasn’t until my junior year of college that I became serious about the sport and devoted more time to all three portions. That’s where the real triathlon fever hit!

What was the most difficult, swimming or cycling: In cycling, it is extremely tough to maintain a high power and cadence, especially when you just want to coast or pedal easy. Your legs start to fatigue quickly on those speed work days, and even on the long ride days. It’s more of a mental challenge to stay on the bike and keep pushing. So overall, I’d have to choose cycling because it is so time consuming if you want to be the best.  

Describe your first triathlon: My first was actually the Conway Kids triathlon when I was about 9. My first big triathlon was the DeGray Triathlon in Arkadelphia when I was 17. I just remember how much fun I had once I crossed the finish line. It was a whole different type of race, more relaxing than cross country (mentally) but just as much of a challenge.

What’s next: I qualified for the World Championships again this year which will be held in Switzerland.  As of right now that’s the main event I’ll be training for.


Sara, 26, qualified for the world event at the USAT National Championships. She competed in the Draft Legal Sprint Triathlon, her first. It included swimming 750 Meters, biking 12.4 miles and running 3.1 miles. She placed about 57th.

Sara has a bachelor of science degree in nutrition with an emphasis on dietitcs from the University of Central Arkansas. “Diet and exercise have always been a passion for me. In high school, I realized how much control I could have over my athletic performance simply through changing my diet,” she said. “The more I learned, the more I wanted to share and help others reach their goals.

Running background: In high school, I lived, ate and breathed basketball. My senior year, I grew an interest in running. After practice, I would go home and run a couple of miles and on the weekends, I would run with a couple of kids from the high school cross country team. I didn’t know that one year later I would hear what a triathlon was and put that running to competitive use.

When did the “triathlon fever” hit: Every day in college I would go to the HPER center for two to three hours to play basketball with the boys. One day, there was a new sign on the bulletin board that said, “Do you have what it takes?” It was about the Heber Springs sprint triathlon. I didn’t have a bike, nor did I own a cap and goggles. My first triathlon was a total mess, but I stuck with it. One year later, I had stocked up on some equipment and participated in my second triathlon in Eureka Springs. From there, I was hooked!

Sara Ross qualified for the world event at the USAT National Championships. She competed in the Draft Legal Sprint Triathlon at the world championships.

What was the most difficult, swimming or cycling: Swimming was the most difficult discipline for me. I never swam free style with my face in the water, owned a pair of goggles or put a swim cap on my head before. Clearly, I had a lot to learn! I have come a long way since the start, but I still have much more to learn and I am always tweaking my stroke to get better.

Describe your first triathlon: I had no idea what it would be like. I just knew I had to swim, bike and run.

The triathlon was in September and I knew the lake would be freezing. A friend loaned me his surfing wet suit. I didn’t know surf wet suits were different than a swimming wet suit. He was much smaller than me, so the wet suit almost made it impossible to breath.

I suited up and took off in the water when the horn went off. I only had to swim 500 yards. I got 100 yards in and decided it was too tight, so I unzipped it to breathe. The whole thing filled with water. I felt like an anchor was just placed on me. I started backstroking and a kayaker came over to ask if I was OK. I responded that I was and he proceeded to tell me the course was the other way.

I finally got out of the water and was on to the bike. My dad had a friend with a really nice carbon racing bike that he wanted me to use. When we drove up, I noticed everyone had these little bikes with little skinny wheels. You mean there is a different kind of bike? Yes, unfortunately so. Here I am, the backstroker, now getting on my big clunky mountain bike. The biggest hill I had ever climbed happened to be on that bike course, so I gladly got off and walked next to my bike.

Making my way back to transition, I had many participants yelling encouragement out of pity from the look of my struggling face, I was pretty close to dead last.

Finally, I made it to the run where all I needed was running shoes. I survived and crossed that finish line with my hands above my head and the biggest smile on my face. I felt like I had just won the Olympics, even though I had come in almost last place.

My mom was at the finish line and bragged for months about me placing second in my age group. I had to keep reminding her that there were only two people in my age group. There was nowhere to go but up, and from that race I worked on improving each day.

What’s next: I am planning on a couple of half marathons in March and April and then will move on to triathlon races. I plan to do a couple half iron mans, nationals in Ohio and the Music City Triathlon.

My training partner is planning to compete in Switzerland at World’s this year, and I will go to be her cheerleader!

Karl Lenser
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